The opening rapid stroke of fingers across the keys of a piano, followed by a staccato funk-driven guitar accompanied by bass, sets the scene for arguably one of the most stunning introductions in the history of rock.
A prepubescent voice; controlled and dynamic, affects a high-pitched mournful smooth-as-silk wail that is reinforced by the doo-wop-like vocal bobbing of a set of older but still youthful backing singers.
Then the words come tumbling out; an impassioned plea for mercy and forgiveness by a previously complacent lover: “When I had you to myself I didn’t want you around”. The voice continues. Despite the tender years of the owner, it conveys pain that is heartfelt, regret which is intense and an honest yearning to turn back the clock.
From the beginning to the middle passages and right to the fade, where the call and response hollering between Michael Jackson and his vocal foil, brother Jermaine, sustains a delicious sense of tension, the delivery is consistently electrifying. It is, perhaps, the perfect pop record.
In a four decades plus long career, Jackson would become the biggest figure in the music business; breaking all manner of recording industry records and attaining an iconic status which would rival and arguably surpass that of all those who came before him.
But it wasn’t only about the music. Jackson’s story is one that encompasses issues of culture and of race as well as the cult and circus of modern celebrity.
It is a tumultuous one full of controversial plots and sub-plots which have continued right up to ascertaining the precise circumstances of his demise.
And for all the triumphs he would rack up, the last decade and a half of his life was especially troubled being the finale of a slow but surely creeping tragedy, the seeds of which had been germinating from his childhood.
But first there was the talent. Raw, unbridled talent first spotted and then moulded by his hyper-disciplinarian father, Joseph and later burnished under the aegis of Motown’s version of the old Hollywood movie studios grooming techniques.
Almost from the beginning, his extraordinary gifts as a vocalist-dancer made him come to the fore as the focus of the Jackson Five.
He had poise and he possessed confidence. The voice was crystal clear and had surprising range. If he wasn’t already born with such abilities, he learned well from the multitude of soul singers whom he observed from the wings of the clubs and halls at which he performed as a child.
Many of his early recordings demonstrate for posterity the proficiency he had at emoting a form of musical expression unique to black Americans; namely the African-American capacity for singing a sad song ‘happy.’
The gutsy manner in which he attacked the bluesy ‘Who’s Loving You’ , a lament for a lost love, famously made the song’s creator, ‘Smokey’ Robinson, all but ‘relinquish’ its ownership.
Could Michael sing the blues? Listen to ‘Don’t Know Why I Love You’ where he narrates a story of a cuckolded lover who despite a series of infidelities is resolutely entrenched in a hopeless love for his tormentor.
‘Testifying’ with impassioned cadences over the gritty fuzz toned guitar accompaniment and the urgent refrain of his brothers’ backing vocals, he elicits a believable sense of pathos as he wallows in his degradation as though relishing his pain: Singing a sad song happy.
Years later in the Gamble and Huff produced Show You The Way To Go, a song about a suitor on the point of desperation, he updates the theme of the pleading lover with a superb display of controlled vocal delivery. Abetted by the warm, soulful harmonies of his brothers, he conveys a sense of urgency and energy as he remonstrates with and attempts to cajole the unwilling or hesitant object of his affections to his line of thinking.
These successes were not confined to the ballads and mid-tempo tunes. His high-pitched vocalisations set to the spectacularly groovy Don’t Stop (Till You Get Enough) as well as the furiously paced and unrelentingly funky Working Day and Night, both from the Off The Wall album, demonstrated his mastery of dance music.
And while Thriller’s Human Nature and The Lady in My Life both confirmed his adeptness at the exposition of pop and soulful ballads, the song Billie Jean, presents rhythm and blues in a post-disco dance form. His performance, redolent of the pain and hurt caused to him by the numerous false accusations he allegedly had to deal with in his personal life, is enthralling. These songs as a solo artiste also highlight his adroitness at double-tracking that is, harmonizing his vocals with pre-recorded ones.
Michael Jackson the dancer was a singularly captivating presence on the stage. As a performer-in-motion, none of the acknowledged iconic figures in any of the genres of the popular music of the twentieth century come close to matching the energy and inventiveness of the manner in which he physically expressed himself. Not Sinatra. Not Elvis. Not Little Richard. Not Jagger nor Springsteen. Jackson did not merely step into and out of choreographed music episodes as did Fred Astaire:
He was the music.
It is important to remember that the prodigiously gifted child who cloned the hyperkinetic moves of James Brown and who mesmerized nightclub audiences and then the Motown chiefs who auditioned him, with Brown’s patented twists, turns and splits, would over the succeeding years develop a style that was distinctively and instantly recognised as all his own.
In the West African tradition, the drum –or the beat- commands the whole body to dance. The dancer ‘hears’ this and responds accordingly. This Jackson faithfully did, and at his best, almost appeared to be laying bare his innermost thoughts and even his soul for the delectation of the captivated audience.
The Motown 25th Anniversary celebration televised and watched by millions in the year following the release of Thriller, was a career defining highpoint and serves as a testament to his abilities a dancer. A set of his fingers grasped the tip of a black fedora he had perched downwards across his forehead. He struck a pose and at first remained unmoved when the metronomic drumbeats of Billie Jean sounded across the arena.
Moments later, his whole body, from head to chest to legs and the tips of his toes, began throbbing in rhythmic unison as though he had assumed the form of a pulsating heartbeat.
Then a sudden release of tension: a rapid succession of angled kicks and fluidly executed stylized twists served to inaugurate a dazzling exhibition of body pops, jerks, and spins which culminated with his ‘moonwalk.’
For those who had followed his career, there was much which was new here. The light stepping though perpetually motioning teenager as seen introducing the ‘robot’ dance on Soul Train and otherwise strutting his stuff on miscellaneous pop and variety shows during the 1970s now danced with a harder, almost violent edge.
While some of these moves, such as his freeze-framed pause on pointy toes, had been witnessed by those who attended the concerts during the Jackson Brothers tour in the early 1980s, the display at the Motown celebration unveiled an evolution in his dance sensibility that was not apparent in the widely viewed videos he had made from the singles culled from the Off The Wall album. Now the whole world was privy.
Jackson’s ascent to fame and fortune was not at all accidental. He became the best by wanting to be the best. As a child he did not merely sit passively transfixed by the antics of James Brown and Jackie Wilson. He continually imbibed the principles of their showmanship. Watching and absorbing like a sponge, he was always keen to learn and adapt any of the stage mannerisms he thought would work for him.
He had drive and displayed a formidably determined outlook towards the development of his career. He supported his father’s decision to leave Motown, not only because of the relatively paltry royalty rate they were on, but also because he felt constricted by the material they were asked to record and also due to the fact that the corporation would not allow him to record the songs he had begun to write.
Again, he sensed the danger of his career dying a suffocating death from the overexposure he and his brothers were experiencing on the variety shows they performed on mid-1970s television and became the driving force in moving away from this direction.
After a largely false start at new label, Epic, where they experimented with the ‘Philly Sound’, he knew they had to change course by insisting on obtaining the necessary creative independence for them to make music the way they saw it. This bore fruit in the massively successful Destiny album which spawned the hit Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) and Blame it on the Boogie.
But as he approached his 21st birthday, Jackson sensed that the time was ripe to revive his dormant solo career. The resulting Off The Wall project, collaboration with producer, Quincy Jones and English songwriter Rod Temperton spawned a record equalling four top ten singles.
His triumph with this album nevertheless had a sting in the tail. His Grammy award successes were limited to the Rhythm & Blues category. He vowed to come back with a bigger album.
The album Thriller came at a propitious time in music history. The use of the short film or ‘music video’ as a marketing tool in the promotion of records and artists as opposed to the previous sole objective of garnering airplay was a development that Jackson immediately sensed could be exploited to his advantage. It was an opportunity that he would seize with wide open arms.
Where in the 1960s artists like The Beach Boy and the Beatles had pioneered the idea of the ‘concept album’, Jackson would revolutionise the music industry with successive offerings of the ‘concept video’ which arguably found its apotheosis with the release of the Thriller video.
There are those of course who bemoan the advent of the age of the video much in the manner as those who view the invention of the ‘singer-songwriter’ as one of the tragedies to befall the music industry.
In the post-‘Tin Pan Alley’ era where bands had to write their own music as opposed to the traditional modus operandi where singers operated strictly as interpreters of the lyrics provided by professional songwriters, audiences had to contend with too much lyrical mediocrity much in the manner that music fans had to contend with a proliferation of bland short films which became the standard fare for the MTV generation.
Videos took away that aspect of the hit record which was intimate and highly personal: the ability of the listener to conceptualise and make meaning of the words of songs through his own imagination. Jackson of course cannot be faulted for this any more than Lennon and McCartney could shoulder the blame for the spate of inferior singer-songwriters that followed in their wake.
Yet, there are those who fault him for this phenomenon, or, at least, attribute much of his success to his videos –as if his songs were not strong enough in their own right.
Jackson had star quality and the extraordinary sales figures garnered by the Thriller album along with the subsequently intensified gaze under the media, meant that he was effectively the greatest male singing star since Elvis Presley, a person to whom he is often compared in terms of both stature and influence. It is a sensitive area of discourse.
The generality of African-American opinion has historically bemoaned the supposed overshadowing and supplanting of black talent by their Caucasian contemporaries. They complained that Billy Ekstine was a far better singer than Frank Sinatra and were convinced that on a level playing field, Fred Astaire could not compete with the Nicholas Brothers.
Elvis was of course anointed as the ‘King of Rock n’ roll’. But, “If Elvis is King”, opined poet Amiri Baraka, “ who is James Brown? God?”
This antagonism was notoriously expounded upon by the rap group Public Enemy whose Fight The Power issued the following declamation:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me.
Straight out racist
The sucker was simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Then at the height of Jackson’s fame in the 1980s, his contemporary, Bruce Springsteen began to be referred to as ‘The Boss’. So If Elvis remained the ‘King of Rock n’ Roll’ and Springsteen was ‘The Boss’, just where did that leave the man with the biggest selling record of all time? It is in regard to all of this that the moniker, ‘King of Pop’ materialised.
The term ‘King of Pop’ apparently derived from the Jackson publicity apparatus and is often derided as evidence by his detractors that he was lightweight and by a segment of his supporters who feel that the term did his achievements little justice. It should be noted though that the element of manufacturing has always existed behind the constructing of legends.
Certainly his predecessors in the area of rock idolatry were involved in their share of stage managed or otherwise contrived incidents such as when the Beatles were met by crowds of screaming female fans at the airport on their first trip to America, and indeed during the so-called ‘Bobby Soxer’ era when publicist Lee Solter's arranged for screaming girl fans to ‘faint’ for Frank Sinatra.
It is of course, expected that rock deities become, to use the overused phrase, ‘sex symbols.’ And right from the outset of his career, Jackson was groomed as such.
The girls screamed for him and the teenaged Michael, handsome, soft-spoken and lithe in his movements fitted the bill –to a point. His high-pitched voice and seemingly effete manners led to widespread rumours that he was homosexually inclined.
Lovestruck adolescent and teenage girl fans wrote to teen rags such as Right On magazine enquiring whether Michael was gay or whether it was true that he was having a sex change operation. Some even believed him to have been chemically castrated in order to ensure the preservation of his falsetto.
As the 1980s developed his lengthening hair, high-pitched voice, and apparent indifference to the pleasures of female flesh made some question both his sexuality and masculinity. His increasingly androgynous appearance began to be the butt of many a comedians joke and he was continually subjected to innuendos in the press.
It was of particular concern to some in the African-American community that this black man who had conquered the music world was turning into a de-sexualized and de-racialized human. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, while appreciative of Jackson’s undoubted talents, groused about what he termed his “sissified” image which he insisted was not a healthy image for a young black man who was in a position of huge influence.
For long, Jackson admitted to being a virgin and professed his inexperience in matters with the opposite sex. The Jehovah’s Witness faith he followed at the time, frowned upon pre-marital sex and this served as a justification of sorts.
But if as some believed, that Jackson was virtually asexual, his seeming dreading of carnality had its subconscious roots not only in the fire and brimstone teachings of his mother’s religious sect, but also in the psychodynamic state brought about by what he witnessed from an early age.
His young mind may have undoubtedly been disturbed by the unabashed sexual activity which took place between his older brothers and fan groupies as he tried to get sleep in the hotel rooms they shared when he was on tour. His faith in the female sex as idealised paragons of virtue was shaken by the way he saw them throw themselves at him and his brothers and in the way in which his brothers used them.
He saw his father cheat on his mother with scores of women when on tour while the family members maintained a silence. Adding to the neurosis was his absolute horror at the antics of a number of highly disturbed female stalkers one of whom famously insisted that he was the father of his child. That character and episode formed the inspiration for the song Billie Jean.
It is difficult for most people to conceive of others not having sexual feelings and not seeking to have an outlet for such feelings. In Jackson’s case, it led to a widespread belief by many that he was a paedophile.
The argument is that his supposed fixation on a lack of a childhood which mandated that he felt most comfortable around children was a cover. Take away the trappings of wealth, they say, and his methods of ‘grooming’ and seduction were no better than that of a playground pervert who offers bribes to his intended target and promises some form of retribution if the ‘secret’ is let out.
The close associations he formed with young boys, at first tolerated, would later lead to a whispering campaign and finally to allegations of child sexual abuse.
That he continued to allow young boys to sleep in his bed after making a 20 million dollar payment to Jordy Chandler in settlement of such claims seemed to border on insanity. The following decade he faced criminal charges related to a young boy who appeared with him in a television documentary.
Jackson of course was acquitted. His supporters argue that in all the instances in which accusations have been made; money was seen to be the prime motivating factor on the part of the parents of the alleged victims.
Why accept a settlement –no matter how large- if your child has been abused (The Chandler settlement was allegedly forced by Jackson’s insurers whereas he had wanted to fight the allegations)?
Surely, no proper parent would settle for less than a judicially executed punishment? Also, Jackson’s lawyers thoroughly discredited the testimony of his accusers at the criminal trial.
Another controversial aspect of the persona of Michael Jackson was his attitude to race and his feelings about being black. He often professed his pride in his blackness although much of the evidence points to the contrary. His early excursions into plastic surgery, initially minor, became more pronounced as the 1980s developed. His nose became thinner as did his lips and his complexion increasingly assumed a paler hue. It appeared to many that he was eliminating those features which marked him as being of African descent.
His protestations that the surgery was only minor and that he suffered from vitiligo, a condition causing the de-pigmentation of skin cut little ice many although evidence did surface that this was the case. While some smirked, others, most of whom were black shuddered. Jackson, although from a sheltered background, was a member of perhaps the most prominent show business family in black America who had come of age in the era following the civil rights campaign.
He and his brothers had been idolised by black youngsters the world over who had looked on them as role models. The Jackson Five after all did not ‘process’ their hair but in fact wore their Afro hairstyles big and proud. Surely, he could have shown greater resistance to ‘succumbing’ to what can be described as a manifestation of self-hatred?
There are two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, Jackson like other blacks grew up in a society within which the perception of beauty reflected the values of the dominant group which is white-hued Caucasian. The messages, both overt and subliminal, it is argued subject them to constant feelings of doubt and even shame about their appearance.
On the other hand, the changes to his appearance stemmed, it is claimed, not from issues of racial self hatred, but from his dissatisfaction about the largeness of his nose for which he was teased as a youngster, the chief culprit reportedly having been his own father.
But this can only be a partial explanation given the circumstances of the birth of his children who appear to have been conceived by means of artificial insemination in which both sets of donors are of white Caucasian stock. Does the fact that he did not contribute his own DNA towards the creation of his children not provide cast iron evidence of his self-hatred and self-loathing?
More likely than not, it does –although it should be noted that his former wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis, claimed that both she and Jackson had a “healthy sex life” and that one point he kept pressing for her to get pregnant, but realising that their relationship would not stand the test of time, she refused.
Until the latter part of his career, Jackson was always extremely careful about his utterances on race. An example occurred in the early 1980s when his father Joe, squeezed out by Jackson after his managerial contract had run its course, spoke of only having brought in whites to help him deal with the corporate structure, Michael’s venomous response of being “sick to the stomach” may have been designed to forestall or limit any damage to his grand design of conquering white ‘middle’ America as it was it was to lash out at the ‘overbearing’ father whom he viewed as his childhood tormentor.
Yet, the reluctance to address any issues that could be perceived as having a racial dimension was a posture he did not to retain when his career began to sour. Donning the mantle of campaigner for the rights of black artists who he alleged were habitually cheated and exploited by the American music industry, Jackson staged a one-man demonstration against Sony, and publicly labelled its then CEO, Tommy Mottola, as a racist who had referred to another black record executive as being a’ fat nigger’. At this time, in the early 2000s, he began to develop closer links to the separatist Nation of Islam (his brother Jermaine converted to Islam some years before).
In many ways his experience of the sales slump in his album Invincible as well as the soon to happen humiliating treatment to which he was subjected during the investigations into child abuse, may have appeared to him as fulfilling the prophecy of his former detractor, Farrakhan who often warned black celebrities that once the white man gets tired of you or feels you are getting too powerful for his own liking, he chews you up and then spits you out back to the ghetto community from whence you came.
It was a surprising turnaround for Jackson whose previous stance, while interpretable as a desire not to offend any section of his fan base, was seen by militants as a sap to the white establishment.
From the perspective of the latter point of view, Jackson had turned from being what Malcolm X had termed a “House Negro” to that of a “Field Negro”.
He had been in a race controversy in middle 1990s when his song They Don’t Care About Us rose howls of protest from Jewish community who viewed the passage “Jew me sue me, Kick me Kike me” as being anti-Semitic. The context itself was not intended as a slur since it posited Jackson as being as victim; analogising in personal terms the historical persecution of the Jew. But a few years later, a taped telephone conversation revealed him complaining in a fit of rage that the Jews were “leeches” who “do it on purpose.”
All rather strange, it must be said, for a man who selected a woman of Jewish birth and, allegedly, a Jewish man to create his first two children. This, a man who unfailingly stressed the bringing together of the races in his songs and statements in his albums.
What then to make of the life and career of Michael Joseph Jackson? It was at first sight a triumph of the American Dream. That the son of a humble crane driver and failed musician could reach an astronomic level of financial and professional success is consistent with such a view.
There was much to admire about him. The tenacity, the dedication and work ethic that he would display time and again was awe inspiring. When there were setbacks he harnessed all the resolve that he could muster, grimly always keeping his eyes on the prize. Lest it be forgotten, one of the biggest hurdles that he faced and surmounted was the transition from child star to major adult player –a feat so many have failed to achieve.
He wasn’t always the vulnerable, child-like man who was naive to the ways of the world but a shrewd businessman who surrounded himself with business savvy lawyers and sharp accountants and who was ruthless enough to obtain the ownership of a lucrative set of publishing catalogues including that collection of Beatles songs.
Jackson often complained of being misunderstood; of being the victim of a harsh and unrelentingly intrusive tabloid press which subjected him to slanders and which continually misinformed the public about him.
Yet, he himself was a master propagandist, a seasoned campaigner in the art of self-promotion and disinformation. If anything, he will be remembered for his capacity to mystify, disturb and confuse those who closely followed the developments in his career and his personal life.
A lot of the earlier negative stories about his ‘weirdness’ that gave rise to the British tabloid inspired term ‘Wacko Jacko’, actually emanated from his publicity machine. This, the Jackson who supposedly spoke to his mannequins, who slept in a hyperbaric chamber and whose chief companion was an orangutan named ‘Bubbles.’
He was terribly self-indulgent, a trait which increased with the passage of time. Coming far from his underprivileged roots in Gary, Indiana, he indulged his pleasures for collecting expensive artwork, expensive toys, running an expensive ranch which he named ‘Neverland’ and undertaking repeated facial reconstruction until his face resembled something that was painfully artificial and extreme.
If Elvis and Jackson have something in common, it was their long-term reaction to fame and its pressures. Both became reclusive and extremely self-indulgent. Where Elvis overate, Jackson overspent. Both would develop a dependency on prescription drugs.
His indulgent lifestyle however should not overshadow the compassionate side of him which for so long involved his donating to a wide range of charities including childrens' hospices, AIDS and cancer research foundations and educational trusts.
The dark side of celebrity-hood is an unavoidable aspect whether such revelations come during or after the subject’s death. Among his fellow singers, Bing Crosby, in contrast to his carefully built image, was portrayed as a ruthless womanizer and an uncaring father whose two sons committed suicide.
Sinatra biographies have focused on his wild and pugnacious streak which had him go so far as to urinate on the gravesite of a journalist he hated, and of course on his associations with organised crime figures. Elvis himself is supposed to have had members of his ‘Memphis Mafia’ crew pickup underaged school girls to satisfy his cravings, and indeed would arrange for his future wife, Priscilla to move into his mansion when she was 14-years of age.
With Jackson, there will be a lot to grapple over the coming years in regard to the effect allegations of paedophilic tendencies will have on the way he is remembered. During his lifetime, his career, already on the wane, was severely tarnished by the two sets of allegations.
The heirs of the film actor Errol Flynn, who feel that his iconic value ought to not be far below those of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, are unshakably of the belief that allegations about his supposed Nazi sympathies which included treasonable activities, have done his image irreparable harm.
But the signs are that since Jackson’s death, they will have no such effect. If anything, the circumstances of his death may in fact begin a conspiracy flavoured theme much as did those that continue to surround Marilyn Monroe and Diana, Princess of Wales. That would be something of a natural progression of the media circus which followed him.
In appraising his importance in music history, Jackson should not be harshly judged by his lengthy period of recording inactivity. And even if it could be argued that much of his post-Thriller output broke little or no ground, the natural question to ask is how many artists are able to sustain an unbroken line of consistent innovation? Elvis descended into parody and stultifying excess in Las Vegas, while Sinatra came back time and again even though his voice increasingly lost its lustre.
It is true that he did not create the sort of concept album of the sort that What’s Going On and Innervisions were, but his voice and his musical personae were not built to run on that type of petrol. Off the Wall and Thriller were masterful conceptions in their own right and have a place within the pantheon of great recording works.
Michael Jackson was a performer who excited the masses like few entertainers have succeeded in doing; who broke racial, cultural and generational barriers, and who virtually single-handedly revived a flagging record industry in the early 1980s.
For these and other accomplishments, history will surely mark him down as having been one of the greatest purveyors of popular music in his age and for all ages.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2009)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England